Pierre Monetta
The precise procession of “birthday” cakes, one for each table at the gala.
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French Lessons

Lisa Abend / January 2013

Classicists, vanguardians, naturalists, old guard, new wave—they all came to the grand party Alain Ducasse threw in Monaco for 240 of his high-profile chef friends to demonstrate that France still counts for something. Lisa Abend was there to see which way the culinary winds were blowing.

Like a scene from an Edith Wharton novel, the servers filed into the gilded dining room in a straight line, each bearing a tiered cake adorned with glittering bonbons. Dressed in dinner jackets and white gloves, that evening they had already poured glasses of four different kinds of Champagne, drizzled olive oil pressed two days earlier onto small plates for each of the 440 guests, shaved hillocks of white truffles onto a spelt risotto with spiny artichokes, and stood attentively by as Prince Albert of Monaco warmly toasted his host. Now, to the opening strains of “Happy Birthday” that came from a quartet perched on a balcony above the salon, the servers gingerly placed the cakes in the center of each table. It was, as planned, 11:59 p.m., exactly one minute before Le Louis XV embarked upon its 26th year.

In its display of luxury and militaristic precision, the anniversary party Alain Ducasse threw for himself at the Hôtel de Paris in November was nothing if not persuasive. Asked its purpose, the chef himself innocently said that he just wanted to “offer hospitality to our friends and show them the products that are available here in November.” But for the 240 other renowned chefs who traveled to Monte-Carlo to help him celebrate—from mentors like Michel Guérard, to one-time rivals for global adulation like Joël Robuchon, to young upstarts like René Redzepi, and even to the supposedly reviled Spanish contingent—the weekend made a powerful, if genteel, argument. For all the positioning and polemics that have gone on in the past, the celebration seemed to say there is nothing quite like the pleasures of the French table. And there is no better exponent for them than Alain Ducasse.

From the Mercedes that picked up guests at the Nice airport and whisked them to the Belle Époque splendor of the Hôtel de Paris to the gold-monogrammed chocolates waiting in their rooms, the weekend offered unmatched luxuries. Yet a big part of the celebration’s dazzle stemmed from the star power of its guest list—some 300 Michelin stars to be exact. In addition to Guérard and Robuchon, the old guard was represented by Olivier Roellinger, Pierre Troisgros, and Jacques Maximin. Thanks to some informed advice from consigliere Andrea Petrini, chefs from the cutting edge of cuisine were there too, including Magnus Nilsson, Daniel Patterson, Iñaki Aizpitarte, and Sat Bains. Scanning the room at one cocktail party, Guy Savoy marveled: “Is there another person in the world who could bring these people together?”

They don’t call Ducasse the godfather for nothing. Twenty-five years after the late Prince Rainier asked him to take over the Louis XV, he now employs over 1,000 people on four continents, with additional star-laden restaurants in Paris, Osaka, London, Hong Kong, and St. Petersburg. Even his failures have been successes of a sort; Restaurant Alain Ducasse may have been shunned and mocked by New Yorkers when it opened in 2000, but it earned the chef another three stars from Michelin.

It seems almost quaint now, yet when he first began to open multiple restaurants, Ducasse was bitterly criticized for this expansionism, even by one-time friends like Le Monde critic François Simon, who famously accused the chef of “Xeroxed” cooking. But the world has changed a lot since then, and for the chefs gathered in Monaco in November, Ducasse’s empire was barely worthy of comment. “If you buy a pair of Versace jeans, you don’t expect for Versace to have sewn them himself,” says Tom Kitchin of Edinburgh’s The Kitchin. “Why should it be any different for a chef?”

Between regular dousings of Champagne and chocolates, other controversies were similarly laid to rest. A few days before the event, Claude Bosi, the Lyon born chef of London’s two-starred Hibiscus, gave an interview to Spears magazine. “France is now a country of lazy people.... They live in the past and just live on their reputations,” Bosi told the magazine. “While there are some young chefs moving things forward in Paris, most people are obtuse about what they like to eat.”

At the press conference that Ducasse held during the celebration in the dizzyingly ornate Sala Garnier of Monte-Carlo’s opera house, a British journalist brought up Bosi’s statements and asked for a response to the charges of irrelevancy. At first, Ducasse declined to comment, but later in the conference returned to the question. “There is no conflict between chefs of different countries when it comes to good cuisine. But please leave France a little bit of leadership. We’ve been doing it longer.” That response got a rousing round of applause from all those gathered—including Bosi (Ducasse apparently took his younger colleague aside for a few words in private).

Ducasse has made no secret of his disdain for food that merely goes after what he calls (in English, no less) the “wow effect,” and that criticism has been taken as an attack, above all, on the pyrotechnics of high-end Spanish cuisine. But at the anniversary’s press conference, he went out of his way to speak of his respect for all cuisines and to suggest that any supposed rivalries had been created predominantly by the media. It seems to have worked. Quique Dacosta, the Spanish chef who created the titanium-clad oysters Guggenheim, could only respond with a similar show of good will. “I felt the ‘wow effect’ when I walked into the lobby of Hôtel de Paris and Ducasse came up to me and not only knew who I was, but knew about my restaurant and what I do. I felt the ‘wow effect,’ when I had the chance to talk to Michel Guérard at the cocktail party, and when I tried those precise, paper-thin vegetables that he served as an amuse-bouche,” Dacosta said. “There are many different kinds of ‘wow.’”

And indeed, it would be hard to find a more harmonious group than the chefs who strolled happily though the special market that Ducasse and his team set up overlooking the Mediterranean. Amid stands overflowing with glossy clementines, fat purple artichokes, and herb-crusted cheeses, they gushed not only at the beauty of the products on display but at the presence of so many of their respected peers. David Chang didn’t even mind when Troisgros asked him if he was Chinese; he was simply thrilled to serve the great chef a taste of his lentil dashi.

Like Chang, Kitchin had agreed to cook for the market lunch. Earlier in the day, the Scottish chef, who worked for two years at Louis XV, moving up from troisième commis (“The plongeur had more power,” he says of his low-ranking job) to demi chef de partie, had passionately defended French cuisine as “the DNA of gastronomy.” Now, as he plated his octopus dish, he expanded on what he had learned from Ducasse himself. “From how you put the artichokes away to how he cleans his stoves,” he recalled. “Everything is perfection.”

That word got thrown around a lot in Monaco. Franck Cerutti, Le Louis XV’s executive chef since Ducasse took over the restaurant, admitted that he hoped that “one day we will achieve perfection. Every day, driving in from Nice I ask myself, ‘Is this the day we will be perfect?’” But for all of Cerutti’s reluctance, others were eager to assign the word. “To be able to reproduce his kind of haute cuisine in any of his restaurants around the world,” remarked Dacosta. “He’s perfected it. Is there anyone who does it so well?”

Asked to reflect on his legacy, Ducasse demurred, noting “that is for others to do.” But he was willing to talk a bit on how his own cooking has changed over the past 25 years. “We didn’t revolutionize our cuisine,” he said. “With time, we used less salt, less sugar, less fat, and placed more emphasis on grains and vegetables, more on rawness. But that was just precision, not revolution. All along, we’ve remained on the same culinary trajectory.”

The summation of that trajectory was on clear display at the gala dinner on November 17. Although in Cerutti’s opinion, the ideal slipped once more from his grasp (“The fish soup,” he sighed the following morning, “the temperature was a little off.”), everyone else was astounded by the degree of, well, perfection. “To serve a risotto, tableside, to 440 people and have it be perfectly cooked and delicious?” asked Redzepi. “It’s amazing.” And even Cerutti was forced to concede that after the meal, Roellinger had come into the kitchen to congratulate him on “the best fish soup he had ever had.” He had said, “No one else could have done that.”

Pleasure, it turns out, is the most persuasive form of soft power. Ducasse didn’t have to dress down Bosi publicly or make a reasoned defense for the continued relevance for French haute cuisine. He simply had to serve spectacularly sweet shrimp, surrounded by a delicate shellfish gelée and topped with a quarter-sized dollop of good caviar to his peers in a gilded room. For one weekend in Monaco, the delicious food, the graceful service, the gorgeous surroundings, the glamour and warmth, the precision and ease—all these things did the talking for him. At a lavish brunch the next morning, the Parisian chef Pascal Barbot was his usual sunny self, despite having had an unfortunate run-in with a slot machine the night before. With his single, stripped-down restaurant L’Astrance, Barbot lies far closer on the dining spectrum to Redzepi and Nilsson (who in fact trained with Barbot) than to Ducasse. Yet asked about his host’s significance, he didn’t hesitate. “Savoir-vivre à la française,” he said, meaning knowing how to live the good life, French-style. “That’s what the experience of this weekend is about—the whole package. And Monsieur Ducasse is the great ambassador of it.”